11/24/2006, 00.00
TURKEY – VATICAN
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Indifference, antipathy and scarce approval as Turkey awaits Pope

by Mavi Zambak

Every day, the nationalist press looks for excuses to make it seem as if the papal visit is annoying even for those people who are not against it. According to a survey, only 10% of Turks approve the pope's visit, 38% are decidedly against while another 38% are indifferent. And 14% preferred not to express their opinion. But now Erdogan says he will do all he can to meet Benedict XVI on 30 November.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – It is no secret that the Turkish people have little liking for Benedict XVI. The Turks, sorry to say, do not like Pope Ratzinger. And this is not only because of his speech delivered in Regensburg in mid-September. Alongside the "religious problem", there is persistent antipathy – concealed less and less – towards the man who, as cardinal, had pronounced a "harsh" opinion about Turkey and its bid to join Europe.

In this Muslim majority and nationalist country, the pope's visit is annoying for both the people and the government, not least because it is clearly linked to an invitation from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and has a religious character.

So in the papers, there is a constant trickle of news aimed at undermining and defaming these two figures of the Christian world (who are depicted as a coalition against Islam and Turkey), provoking controversies and irritation even on the most minor issues. So on one day, anger may be focused on the affront caused by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch who wanted to "set up a church" in the Hilton Hotel. This is just because there will be a press room in the hotel, as requested by Bartholomew I, with the possibility of watching on large screens the religious ceremonies due to take place in Istanbul on 30 November. The following day, anger could shift against the Pope, who "refused" the invitation to the traditional State dinner offered by the Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer on 28 November. And attention is drawn to inconveniences that residents of Istanbul will have to put up with in those areas where the pope will go: access to their homes will be impeded and they will need a special police permit to park. Once again, it is quirks bordering on the ridiculous and gossip about the pope's vestments that are taking up space in newspapers, like the quest to understand why he has 33 buttons on his robe, why he wears red shoes and a gold ring.

But not much space is devoted to protest rallies against the visit of Ratzinger.

The more fanatical newspapers, like Vakit, last Sunday ran front-page appeals to cancel the invitation to a pope "who denigrated our prophet Muhammad and our Turkish nationality", and today they again highlighted the pope's refusal to attend the ceremonial dinner, ridiculing Benedict XVI who "does not allow himself earthly pleasures." But the newspapers failed to emphasize a move by around 100 militants of the Great Union (an extreme right party, close to the Grey Wolves), who dared to pray in the Santa Sofia museum to protest against the Pope.

Further, several rallies are being held by small faded groups that are going around Istanbul's squares with printed placards and the usual slogan: "We don't want the pope in Turkey". Then there are those with strong overtones of protest against the role of the coalition of the two Christian religious leaders. "The Patriarch and the Pope are in Fanar. What have they got to do with the Turkish nation? We don't want Benedict XVI among us."

And a big rally, organized by the Happiness Party has been scheduled for next Sunday in Istanbul with the slogan: "The false and ignorant Pope is not welcome."

As alarm levels are fast approaching the limit, the government now seems determined to pour oil on troubled waters.

In recent days, it transpired that not only would the Turkish premier, Tayyip Erdogan, be absent during the pope's visit, other high-ranking government officials would also not be there to welcome the Holy Father. The overseas commitments of the Foreign Affairs Minister, Abdullah Gul, were confirmed: Latvia for the NATO summit. The Religious Affairs Minister, Mehmet Aydin, is scheduled to be in Germany to participate in a bilateral Turkish-German summit and then in Holland for a meeting on integration with the Dutch minister. Even the mayor of Istanbul, Kadi Topbas, will not be present, as he is in Brussels. And thus, since the ministers will all be absent, the welcome at the airport will be left to a woman, Oya Tuzcuoglu, director-general of protocol at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, with a very simplified ceremony compared to that reserved for heads of states.

However, yesterday there was a dramatic turn of events: a short article reported that, given the current state affairs, Prime Minister Erdogan would do his best to meet the Pontiff in Istanbul on 30 November, "to avoid giving the impression that he and his government want to escape from the Pope."

And even Alì Bardakoglu, head of Turkey's religious affairs directorate, who had been so enraged about the speech in Regensburg, has said he is willing to meet the Pope. While reiterating that dialogue and encounter with Ratzinger did not mean sharing the same views and dogmas, he said he saw "this visit as a positive step for the development of respect and dialogue between members of different religions and cultures in the world. This meeting will be a positive step to construct a future on the path of peace."

But what do people really think about this visit?

The latest surveys carried in Turkey's main newspapers with nationwide coverage, reveal that only 10% of Turks approve the pope's visit, 38% are decidedly against while another 38% are indifferent. And 14% preferred not to express their opinion.

However, even if they may not declare themselves to be hostile to the pope, people admit they are afraid something could happen. Despite constant assurances from police and security officials, many are not so sure that everything will go smoothly, and they fear unexpected hazards. Mehmet Ali Solak, an Alevite, director of the "Guvey Ruzgari" (southern wind) magazine, admitted to fears that someone may seek to attempt to assassinate the Pope, or even just to create unrest to discredit Turkey, and to shift the blame onto the Turks. Acknowledging that this was one reason why many would prefer Benedict XVI to stay at home, Solak echoed the views of a good part of the Turkish population (especially religious and ethnic minorities and also some Christians).

But there are also those who expect strong words of support from the Pope with regard to authentic freedom and democracy, against the Islamization that increasingly threatens to destroy the true secularism of the country. Thus, the daily Sabah, an extreme right Kemalist, summed up its thinking in a front page cartoon depicting a blurred crowd of people appealing to the figure of the Pope, saying "You save us".

Christians, meanwhile, have already grabbed all available tickets for liturgical ceremonies that the Pope will celebrate in Ephesus and Istanbul. There is no need for a special pass to go to Fanar (seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate) on the morning of 30 December, but a personal entry ticket is required for two Eucharistic celebrations, the first in Mary's house in Ephesus on 29 November and the second at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul in the morning of 1 December.

The tickets were swept up especially by Catholics of the eastern rites: Armenians, Syrians, Chaldeans and Maronites, many of who are refugees from across the Middle East, especially Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and eastern Turkey. They are deeply Catholic Churches that are much attached to the figure of the Pope. More than anyone else, it is they who are waiting for their Shepherd with great joy and devotion, to ask for words of comfort, encouragement and nearness from him.

They are also Churches that have long been ignored by the West, and it is important for them to be present when Benedict XVI visits, to show him all their affection and Catholicity.

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